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Concerning the Inner Life, by Evelyn Underhill

by davesandel on October 15th, 2011

Concerning the Inner Life, by Evelyn Underhill, 1926

96 pages

            Before she wrote her magnum opus, Mysticism (1911) or taught at Oxford University on religion (1921), Evelyn Underhill tried her hand at spiritual fiction.  Her first novel, The Grey World (1904), begins: “A children’s hospital is not a bad place to die in …” and proceeds to interweave the tale of a boy’s soul that transitions between two dimensions, the world of the living and a Grey World – of the dead.

Evelyn’s 65 years (1875-1941) were lived as an Englishwoman during the last heydays of the British Empire, the devastation of World War I, the ensuing moral and economic hopelessness of the Great Depression, and finally the bombing of London day after day in 1940 and 1941.  Between the wars, Evelyn became a pacifist.  She spent her mornings writing spiritual books and her afternoons visiting the poor and giving spiritual direction.

Evelyn Underhill left many remarkable books describing the experience of living the spiritual life.  In Mysticism she writes:

By a deliberate inattention to the senses, such as that which is induced by contemplation, the mystic brings the ground of the soul, the seat of “Transcendental Feeling”, within the area of consciousness: making it amenable to the activity of the will.  (Gradually) becoming unaware of his usual and largely fictitious “external world”, another and more substantial set of perceptions, which never have their chance under normal conditions, rise to the surface.  Sometimes these unite with the normal reasoning faculties.  More often, they supercede them.  Some such “losing to find” appears to be necessary if man’s transcendental powers are to have their full chance.

Concerning the Inner Life is a transcription of three talks she gave in 1925 to Catholic priests in northern England.  Universal women’s suffrage was not achieved in the U.K. until 1928, and although Evelyn introduces herself cautiously to these male pillars of English religious and social life (see the first quotation), within minutes she begins burrowing deep into their collective conscience.

Evelyn insists … she knows … that the “little Child” will lead them.  By focusing on Jesus’ example of continual prayer, these leaders led by Jesus will lead their people.  Time and again she reiterates, “If you pray, they will pray.”  And this is how you must pray, she says, learning from the Lord’s Prayer as well as Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises: pray a lengthy prayer of adoration, and this will give rise to praise and intercession.  This prayer will fill you and, consequently your church, and finally your people with the sweet strong true Presence of the Holy Spirit.

Nothing of her admonition and encouragement is lost on religious workers of the twenty-first century.  How much busier (perhaps) we are now than they were then?  How much more caught up in zero-sum calculations of time and spiritual effect are we now than they were then?  And …how much has God not changed?  Why would we pursue Him any differently?

Evelyn’s desire to lead these mostly conservative, traditional men into the wonderful world of mystical union with God draws her essentially romantic heart into the words she shares.  Her confidence in God and man allows her to expect that as these men spend time with God in this world, they will inevitably bring along their parishioners to do the same.   This certainly continues to be true.  At the 2011 World Conference of the American Association of Christian Counselors, my favorite workshop was titled “Learning to Hear God: You Can’t Give Well What You Don’t Do Well.”

Evelyn Underhill’s husband fiercely resisted her desire to join the Catholic church, and she became an Anglican in 1921.  She is honored in both Anglican and Episcopal churches with a feast day on June 15, the day of her physical death.

Quotations compiled from Concerning the Inner Life:


  1. 1.                    The Heart of Personal Religion

I feel a great diffidence in coming before you as an ordinary laywoman.  I only presume to do so because I care about these things very much, and have some leisure to think about them … If many of these are already familiar to you, as they probably are, you must forgive me. – p. 12

Real people of prayer have so far developed their spiritual sense that their supernatural environment is more real and solid to them than their natural environment. – p. 16

The laity distinguish in a moment the clergy who are (entirely guided by the Creative Spirit in their prayer and their work) and those who are not. – p. 16

For the parishes to which you are sent you are, or should be, the main links with the supernatural world, the main channels of God’s action on souls.  You are those in whom the hope of a more intense spiritual life for those parishes is centred. – p. 17

There you are, moving through life: immersed in the world of succession and change, constantly claimed by the little serial duties and interests of your career, and yet ringed round by the solemn horizon of eternity, informed by its invisible powers. And because you are priests (Anglican) – even more than is the case with other men, all that you do, feel and think as you move through this changing life, is going to affect all the other souls whom you touch, and condition their relation with that unchanging Real.  Through you, they may be attracted to or repelled by the spiritual life. – p. 17

You are held tight in this double relationship: to those other changing souls and to that changeless God. – p. 17-18

We, the laity, know instantly the difference between the churches which are served with love and devotion and those which are not.  And we know this from what their ministers are like. – p. 18

Called upon to practise in their fullness the two great commandments (love God and each other), you can only hope to get the second one right if you are completely controlled by the first.  And that will depend on the quality of your secret life of prayer, your secret inner life. – p. 18

This quality of humble and genial devotedness (not ferocious intensity and strain) makes contagious Christians, when others catch the utter delightedness of the consecrated life.  It is then that every formal act of worship in church is filled with the free spontaneous worship of your soul.  That is what wins people above all. – p. 18-19

St. Ignatius Loyola based the whole of his great Spiritual Exercise on one fundamental truth: “Man was created for this end – to praise, reverence and serve the Lord his God.” … Looking at the chosen order of the terms which that great saint and psychologist employed, what does it mean?  It means that one’s first duty is adoration, and one’s second duty is awe, and only one’s third duty is service. – p. 22

All this must happen in you before you can give it to your people, mustn’t it?  You have to show them in your own person the literal truth of the other great Ignatian saying: “I come from God – I belong to God – I am destined for God!” – p. 23

The writings of the saints and of many lesser lovers of God prove to us again and again that the sense of the Eternal as a vivid fact can become so integrated with the life of the soul, that it can reach the level of habit. – p. 24-25

Your supernatural status matters supremely to every soul that is in your charge, and will be the main factor in bringing other souls into your charge. – p. 25

The religion of the priest must be from first to last theocentric, and it must be fed by a devotional practice based upon that objective Power and Presence … Once you have made that utter independence and given-ness of God your point of departure, your whole conception of life will be affected.  And many little fusses about the details of that life will vanish away. – p. 26

Mother Janet Stuart said, “Think glorious thoughts of God – and serve Him with a quiet mind!”  Think glorious thoughts … and not controversial thoughts, or dry academic thoughts, or anxious worried thoughts, or narrow conventional thoughts.  All these bring contraction instead of expansion to our souls (an unfailing test of our spiritual state). – p. 27

Meditations such as these keep our windows open towards Eternity, and preserve us from that insidious pious stuffiness which is the moth and rust of the dedicated life. – p. 27-28

You will only bring men and women to the love of God in so far as you yourselves have got it; and can only help them to make sense of that world of time and events which so greatly bewilders them, in so far as you are able to bring into it the spirit of Eternity.  That is what you are for. – p. 28

You will never transmit the heavenly music to others unless you yourselves are tuned into it; and that, once more, means giving to it careful and undivided attention during part of each day. – p. 29

Even the greatest spiritual teachers, such as St. Paul and St. Augustine, could never afford to relax the tension of their own spiritual lives; they seemed never to stand still, were never afraid of conflict and change. – p. 30

Be indulgent to others and hard on oneself; this recipe retains all its virtue still.  This real Christian temper, being outwardly genial and inwardly austere, depends entirely on the use we make of the time set apart for “personal religion.” It is always achieved if courageously and faithfully sought. – p. 31

Love and prayer, on the lips of the saints, are not mere nice words but the names of tremendous powers able to transform in a literal sense human personality and make it more and more that which it is meant to be – the agent of the Holy Spirit in the world. – p. 33

The mystical life is the complete life of love and prayer which transmutes those objects of belief into living realities: love and prayer directed to God for God himself, and not for any gain for ourselves. – p. 33-34

External religious activities – services, good works – are necessary because we are not pure spirits but human beings, receiving through our senses the messages of Reality.  But all the beauty of these activities is from within.  And the degree in which we can either exhibit or apprehend that beauty depends on our own inward state. – p. 34


2.                        The Goals of Inner Life

The problem of how to obtain time and peace for attention to the spiritual world is primary for each of you … and we must discover what kind of practice suits our souls – ours, not someone else’s, and now, at this stage of its growth: the prayer … in which you are quite supple with God and is best able to carry you over the inevitable fluctuations of spiritual level and mood. – p. 38-39

The vocation of the Christian minister is the mixed life of prayer and service of which the classic pattern is seen in Christ: the highest, the most difficult, the most complete human life that we know… Such a regime, faithfully followed, will slowly but surely transform the personality of those pursuing it. – p. 40-41

For many, the time they spend with you in church is the only opportunity they have of seeing what prayer is, and it is your great opportunity to show them what it is.  It is wonderfully impressive to see a soul that really loves God, and really feels awe and delight, speaking to Him.  And therefore, learning to do that is, surely, a pastoral act? – p. 42

You remember what Penn said of George Fox: “The most awe-full, living, reverent frame I ever felt or beheld, was his in prayer” – a tiny, vivid picture of a human soul concentrated upon the supernatural world. – p. 42

Your prayer should be of a meditative and re-collective type, so that you may develop that priceless art of prompt recollection at odd times which is unequalled in its power of restoring and stabilizing our adherence to God. – p. 44

St. Bonaventure divides people of prayer into three main types: first those who attend chiefly to supplication (intercessors); next, those who attend chiefly to speculation (theologians); and last, those who rise beyond both these to ecstatic communion with God (contemplatives).  The classification is obviously based on the threefold promise of Christ, in respect of the prayer that asks, the prayer that seeks and the prayer that knocks at the door: and, like that promise, it exhibits under symbols a profound psychological and spiritual truth:  namely the power and range of the soul’s effective desire.  Just as all three types are needed to form the Church’s life of prayer, so it is also true that something of each of these elements is needed in every complete spiritual life, giving as they do a supernatural objective to the will, the intellect and the heart. – p. 44-45

This is the general aim: how do we secure it?  1) Learn the means of gaining and holding a right attitude.  2) Nourishing spiritual food with a bite to it.  3) Education and training of our spiritual powers to an ever greater expansion and efficiency.  4) Some definite spiritual work. – p. 45

Each of these four needs is met by a different type of prayer.  1) Supported by the prayer of pure adoration.  2) Food from spiritual reading (lectio divina) and meditation.  3) the results of #2, and formal, affective, or re-collective prayer.  4) the work of intercession and redemptive self-oblation (meaning the act of offering oneself in worship or thanks). – p. 45-46

There are two movements which must be plainly present in every complete spiritual life.  The energy of its prayer must be directed on the one hand towards God and on the other, towards people … Thus prayer, like the whole of man’s inner life, “swings between the unseen and the seen” … The second movement will only be well done where the first has the central place. – p. 46-47

Prayer is a supernatural activity or nothing at all; and it must primarily be directed to supernatural ends.  It too acknowledges the soul’s basic law: it comes from God, belongs to God, is destined for God. – p. 47

Prayer must begin, end, and be enclosed in the atmosphere of adoration – aiming at God for and in Himself … opening our doors wide to receive His ever-present Spirit, abasing ourselves and acknowledging our own nothingness. – p. 47

The soul that has thus given itself to God becomes part of the mystical body through which He acts on life.  Its destiny is to be the receiver and transmitter of grace. Is not that practical work?  For Christians, surely the only practical work. – p. 48

Only when our souls are filled to the brim can we presume to offer spiritual gifts to other people. – p. 48

I am certain that we gradually and imperceptibly learn more about God by this persistent attitude of humble adoration that we can hope to do by any amount of mental exploration.  For in it our soul recaptures, if only for a moment, the fundamental relation of the tiny created spirit with its Eternal Source … in it we breathe deeply the atmosphere of Eternity; and when we do that, humility and common sense are found to be the same thing. – p. 49

From this adoring prayer, all the other prayerful dispositions of our souls seem to spring: a deep, humble contrition, a sense of our creaturely imperfection and unworthiness, gratitude for all that is given us, and a burning and increasing charity that longs to spend itself on other souls. – p. 49-50

One type of prayer can be used by all and is unequalled in psychological and religious effectiveness.  This is the so-called “prayer of aspirations” (a short prayer meant to be memorized and repeated throughout the day – from the Latin aspirare, “to breathe upon.”)  These little phrases of love and worship help us, as it were, to keep our minds pointing the right way, and never lose their power of forming and maintaining in us an adoring temper of soul … They stretch and re-stretch our spiritual muscles, and make us take deep breaths of mountain air.  The habit of aspiration is difficult to form, but once acquired exerts a growing influence over the soul’s life … Do they not bring us back to the truth that the most important thing in prayer is never what we say or ask for, but our attitude towards God? They give the mind something to hold on to and persuade us to feel the love, penitence or joy which they suggest. – p. 52-53, p. 64

Spiritual reading (the brooding consideration, the savouring, as it were the chewing of the cud) is or should be second only to prayer as a developer and support of the inner life.  In it we have access to all the hoarded supernatural treasure of the race: all that it has found out about God.  It should not be confined to Scripture, but should also include at least the lives and the writings of the canonized and uncanonized saints … it gives us real intercourse with the great souls of the past, who are the pride and glory of the Christian family. – p. 54

Most people who have taken the trouble to apply their visual imagination, feeling, thought and will to the art of spiritual reading get their spiritual food largely by this deliberate exercise of brooding, loving thought – entering into, dwelling on, exploring and personally applying the deeds and words of Christ or of the saints, or the fundamental conceptions of religion. – p. 58

We have to use for our spiritual lives and our spiritual contacts a mental machinery that has been evolved for dealing with the problems and necessities of our bodily lives, and for setting up contacts with the physical world.  And that mental machinery, as we all know, is often rebellious and hard to adjust.  It is on much more intimate terms with our sensory and motor reactions than it is with our spiritual desires and beliefs. – p. 61

One great function of regular prayer consists in the training of our mental machinery for the duties asked of it in the devotional life. – p. 61

Our emotions are very closely connected with, and often evoked by, the appropriate gestures and muscular movements which have become associated with them.  Thus, for instance, kneeling does tend to put us in a prayerful mood…That instinctive psychologist, St. Ignatius, who leaves nothing to chance, gives very careful and exact directions for the bodily behavior of those who are going through the Spiritual Exercises. – p. 64-65

We shall never become spiritual until we acknowledge the humbling fact that we are half animal still, and must suit our practices to our condition. – p. 65

It is one of the most painful obligations of the life of the religious worker, that he is often called upon to help other souls when he is in desolation himself.  He has got to put a good face on it – to listen to their raptures or their despairs – to give himself without stint in serving.  And this is one of the most purifying of all experiences that can come to him; for it contains absolutely no food for self-satisfaction, but throws him completely back upon God. – p. 67


3.                        Contemplation and Creative Work

Spiritual direction work is surely one of the most sacred of human duties; and as your inner life becomes stronger and your spiritual sensitivity increases, so more souls will inevitably come to you for it, and more and more of its difficulties and possibilities will be revealed. – p. 84

Direction work can, of course, be done only and all the time in absolute interior dependence on God; and all the most valuable part of it will be done silently, by the influence of your prayer on the souls that you are called upon to guide.  You will find it a perfectly possible and practicable thing to reach out to them and mould them in that way; and if they are at all sensitive, they will probably become aware that you are doing it. – p. 85

You are face to face with a living, growing individual spirit – not a lump of wax on which to stamp the Christian seal.  And you are responsible to God, not for giving that soul a bit of orthodox information but for helping it to see its own whereabouts, actualize in its own way its particular spiritual capacities.  Hence the first temptation which the director must conquer at all costs, is the inclination to generalize, to apply stock ideas. – p. 86

Wise moderation in direction, a gentle willingness to wait, is perhaps the one thing that is always safe with everyone all the time. – p. 86

The emotional aura surrounding religious ideas is of all things most difficult to estimate.  Your pet symbols may turn out to be those which are most calculated to put your pupils off … The one thing which really matters is the contagious character of your own certitude, never the argument by which it is expressed. – p. 87

In proportion as your interior life of prayer grows, deep, tender and selfless, in proportion as you value forms only as the clothing of inwardly perceived realities, so will you be able to get away from the conventional phraseology which now puts so many people off so terribly, and adapt your language to the particular circumstances of each soul. – p. 88-89

It needs a great deal of self-abandonment to do all this with simplicity – it means learning from those who come to you, as well as trying to teach – and that is the purifying part of personal religious work. – p. 90

It is useless, indeed dangerous, to read works on mystical prayer and presume to apply them, unless we have to some extent sought to practise the discipline of recollection ourselves.  We think that we understand them and we don’t; we try to apply them and come hopelessly to grief. – p. 92

Spiritual books are written in the language of the spirit, and must be spiritually discerned. They yield a new sense at every reading, and it is only after many years that most of us begin to realize the colossal nature of own initial mistakes. – p. 92

The work of the great French spiritual directors – Fénelon, Bossuet, François de Sales, Vincent de Paul – shows what it can do, and what gentle wisdom, moderation, flexibility, psychological insight, selfless patience and spiritual firmness it demands.  Their letters of direction are full of that sanctified common sense which weaves together with a firm hand the worlds of nature and of grace. – p. 93

The Eternal, Changeless God reaches out to win and eternalize His creatures by contact through personality (incarnation).  Thus the direct action of Divine Love on man is through man.  So God requires our growth in personality, in full being, in order that through us His love and holiness can more and more fully be expressed. – p. 96

Our Lord’s life of ministry supported by much lonely prayer gives us the classic pattern of human correspondence with this, our twofold environment … As that real life, that interior union with God grows, so too does the saints’ self-identification with humanity grow.  And they, like Jesus, go right down into the mess; and there, right down in the mess, they are able to radiate God because they possess Him. – p. 96

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